Elon Musk by Walter Isaacson

(New York: Simon and Schuster, 2023), 688

Apart from my two short interactions1 with Elon during my time at SpaceX most of what I know about him comes from reading. Isaacson shadowed him for two years, and writes with a force powered by this as well as his perspective writing previously about Einstein and Jobs and Da Vinci.

Musk is a polarizing figure to be sure, and even when I was at SpaceX I wrestled with questions of balance and mission and purpose. But whatever you think of Musk, you can't avoid the deep questions that drive his life and which he forces one to consider, such as What are the most important problems for humanity to solve? and What is the value of free speech?. You also can't pick him apart—he is who he is with the mind-blowing faults and dazzling accomplishments all wrapped up together. Isaacson's biography is insightful precisely to the degree he shows the many sides of Musk's personality (614).

There is too much in Musk to attempt to summarize, but a few things that stood out to me in this reading include: how awful and abusive his childhood was and how that shaped him; the crazed intensity of his "demon mode" and "surges"; the challenges of wrestling with free speech on Twitter; the ways in which he pulls the best engineers from his companies to work on the most pressing problems; how he managed Starlink during the Ukraine war as a sort of real life Tony Stark; how his unrealistic timelines "transform his wild notions from being completely insane to being merely very late" (101); how he starts with the mission and then finds a working business model (93, 400); and finally how he makes you think about what you are spending your effort on in life and if it is really worthwhile (56, 58).

This certainly isn't the last biography that will be written on Musk, but it is the best so far. How will history judge him in 50, or 100, or 1,000 years? I suspect his greatest accomplishments have not yet occurred.




  • "That's just the stupidest thing I've ever heard." (166)
  • "If conventional thinking makes your mission impossible, then unconventional thinking is necessary." (283)
  • "Go as close to the source as possible for information." (328)
  • "Precision is not expensive. It's mostly about caring." (339)
  • "If you cannot xyz, your resignation will be accepted immediately." (364)
  • "This is what I like doing most, iterating with kickass engineers!" (388)
  • "When I see a tube that cost twenty thousand dollars, I want to stab my eye with a fork." (388)
  • "We are not shooting for the moon. We are shooting for Mars." (391)
  • "It's draining to have to switch between so many issues. But there are a lot of problems, and I have to solve them." (395)
  • "What did you get done this week?" That was the ultimate Musk put-down. (451)
  • "It's hard to change destiny. You can't just do it from nine to five." (478)
  • "Be wary of anyone whose confidence is greater than their competence." (512)
  • "Does this timeframe seem like something that I would find remotely acceptable?" (582)
  • "This is making my brain hurt." (582)
  • "You should never use a cruise missile to kill a fly; just use a flyswatter." (595)
  • "My fucking brain is hurting...I'm trying to figure out how we get humanity to Mars with all this bullshit." (608)

Other Elon Quotes

  • "Adversity shaped me. My pain threshold became very high." (5)
  • "If I start to think about something hard, then all of my sensory systems turn off. I can't see or hear or anything. I'm using my brain to compute, not for incoming information." (17)
  • Childhood religious instruction: "I wasn't really going to put a lot of effort into things I thought were meaningless." (26, 30)
  • "I thought about the things that will truly affect humanity. I cam up with three: the internet, sustainable energy, and space travel." (58)
  • "I never wanted to be a CEO, but I learned that you could not truly be the chief technology or product officer unless you were the CEO." (63)
  • After Falcon 1 flight 4 success: "There was a sense of relief, like being spared from death, but no joy. I was way too stressed for that." (188)
  • AI: "I think the best defense against the misuse of AI is to empower as many people as possible to have AI." (243)
  • "Trump might be one of the world's best bullshitters ever...If you just think of Trump as sort of a con-man performance, then his behavior sort of makes sense." (262)
  • Dealing with hard times: "Just take the pain and make sure you really care about what you're doing." (269)
  • Tesla tent factory: "Get one of those permits and start building a huge tent. We'll have to pay a fine later." (282)
  • "I'm not a religious person, but I nonetheless got on my knees and prayed for that mission." (348, first manned flight)
  • "We need to get to Mars before I die. There's no forcing function for getting us to Mars other than us, and sometimes that means me." (362)
  • "I've been burning the candle at both ends with a flamethrower for a very long time." (410)
  • "Fighting to survive keep your going for quite awhile. When you are no longer in a survive-or-die mode, it's not that easy to get motivated every day." (410)
  • "The harm from the coronavirus panic far exceeds that of the virus itself." (417)
  • "Unless the woke-mind virus, which is fundamentally antiscience, antimerit, and antihuman in general, is stopped, civilization will never become multiplanetary." (418)
  • California: "I came there when it was the land of opportunity. Now it's the land of litigation, regulation, and taxation." (420)
  • On Joe Biden: "He was boring as hell, like one of those dolls where you pull the string and it just says the same mindless phrases over and over." (420)
  • "I mean, I love my own humor, even if others don't. I kill me." (468)
  • NASA is not even in the game anymore: "If China gets to the moon before we do again, it will be a Sputnik moment." (476)
  • "I'm a big believer that a small number of exceptional people who are highly motivated can do better than a large number of people who are pretty good and moderately motivated." (548)
    • Ross: "He believes that a small group of really great generalist engineers can outperform a regular group a hundred times larger." (556)
  • "Musk was like Steve jobs, a brilliant but abrasive taskmaster with a reality-distortion field who could drive his employees crazy but also drive them to do thins they thought were impossible." (559)
  • "This is how civilizations decline. They quit taking risks. And when they quit taking risks, their arteries harden. Every year there are more referees and fewer doers. When you've had success for too long, you lose the desire to take risks." (609)

Musk's Management Philosophy

  • Idiot Index: cost of a product over the cost of the raw materials to make the product. "If the ratio is high, you're an idiot." (99, 363)
  • Every part, process, and specification needs to have a name attached (152)
  • Buzza: "The important thing with Elon is that if you told him the risks and showed him the engineering data, he would make a quick assessment and let the responsibility shift from your shoulders to his." (210)
  • Hardcore
    • Model S production email: "Please prepare yourself for a level of intensity that is greater than anything most of you have experienced before. Revolutionizing industries is not for the faint of heart." (220)
    • Twitter opt-in email: "We want to make it sound like the Shackleton expedition. We want people who declare they are hardcore." (550)
  • Elon engaged in Surges, "an all-hands-on-deck 24/7 frenzy to produce an outcome by a deadline that was artificial and unrealistic" (333). These included the 1337 Raptor surge (392). See also 270, 277.
  • "In times of challenge, one of his refuges is to focus on a future project." (317)
  • Elon: "I try to criticize the action, not the person. We all make mistakes. What matters is whether a person has a good feedback loop, can seek criticism from others, and can improve. Physics does not care about hurt feelings. It cares about whether you got the rocket right." (365)
  • Employees who left:
    • "You definitely realize that you're a tool being used to achieve this larger objective, and that's great. But sometimes, tools get worn down and he feels he can just replace the tool." (367)
    • "Working for Elon is one of the most exciting things you can do, but it doesn't allow time for a lot else in your life." (367)
  • "I think I've been pretty clear: make it out of steel." He admitted there was a reasonable chance that it would not work, but it was better to try and fail rather than analyze the issue for months. "If you make this thing fast, you can find out fast. And then you can fix it fast. (388-389)
  • "Managers should not aim to be liked." (445)
  • Elon: "I interface way better with engineers who are able to do hardcore programming than with program manager/MBA types of people." (446)
  • "I believe in strict meritocracy." (465)
  • "All bad news should be given loudly and often. Good news can be said quietly and once." (486)
  • Choose what to devote your thought to: "I have only so many brain cycles and hours in the day."

The Algorithm

Musk's First principles Approach to Technology

  1. Question every requirement
  2. Delete any part or process you can
  3. Simplify and optimize
  4. Accelerate cycle time
  5. Automate


  • All technical manager s must have hands-on experience
  • Camaraderie is dangerous (if people don't challenge each other's work)
  • It's OK to be wrong
  • Never ask your troops to do something you're not willing to do
  • Skip level down to solve problems
  • Hire for the right attitude
  • A maniacal sense of urgency is our operating principle
  • The only rules are the ones dictated by the laws of physics. Everything else is a recommendation

Quotes About Elon

  • Talulah Riley: "Inside the man, he's still there as a child, a child standing in front of his dad." (5)
  • Maye Musk: "My children had to be responsible for themselves...You'll figure it out." (20)
  • Justine Musk: "He can be very harsh, but at the end of the day, you can trust him to find a way to prevail." (38)
  • ==quote on 86==
  • Reid Hoffman: "Elon starts with a mission and later finds a way to backfill in order to make it work financially." (93)
  • Straubel dealing with Musk: "You just have to learn how to deal with his demands. Figure out what his goal is, and keep giving him information. That's how he gets the best outcomes." (199)
  • Kiko Dontchev: "I worried about getting pulled over for drunk driving, but that seemed less of a risk than ignoring Elon." (350)
  • Shivon Zilis: "I noticed that I learned more unique lessons from Elon per minute than any other human I've met. It would be dumb to not spend some of your life with such a person." (401)
  • Shivon Zilis: "Extended periods of calm are unnerving for him." (442)

Elon and Risk

  • Peter Thiel: "Elon wants risk for its own sake." (6)
  • "Risk is a type of fuel." (252)
  • Hans: "That's typical of Elon. A decision to take a risk signaled by a nod of the head." (352)
  • "We don't want to design to eliminate every risk. Otherwise, we will never get anywhere." (611)

Musk's Rules for Rocket-Building

  1. Question every cost
    • make as many components as possible in house
    • all requirements should be treated as recommendations—the only immutable requirements are the laws of physics
  2. Have a maniacal sense of urgency
    • Mueller: "I learned never to tell him no. Just say you're going to try, then later explain why if it doesn't work out." (114)
    • "The sense of urgency was good for its own sake. It made his engineers engage in First principles thinking" (114)
  3. Learn by failing
    • Iterative design approach: move fast, blow things up, repeat
  4. Improvise
    • Buzza: "Elon believes that every situation is salvageable." (116)
    • Try new ideas and be willing to blow things up

Other Notes

  • Family motto growing up: "Live dangerously—carefully." (11)
  • Musk was a voracious reader as a child:
    • Reading as a child: reading through the night 9 hours at a time, visiting others' libraries, both sets of his father's encyclopedias (27)
    • He addressed his philosophical questions through reading Nietzsche, Heidegger, Schopenhauer: "I do not recommend reading Nietzsche as a teenager." (30)
    • His favorite Science Fiction includes The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, Foundation by Azimov ("Foundation Series & Zeroeth Law are fundamental to creation of SpaceX") (31)
    • The most influential book to him—the "Bible of his childhood years"—is The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: how to ask the right questions (31, 415, 606)
    • In college with Tosca: "He would walk behind her and her friends, carrying a book to read whenever they went into a club or party." (43)
  • Strategy games (Civiliazation, Polytopia) are central to Musk's life to relax and hone his skills (46)
    • "There's so many life lessons you learn, so many weird things about yourself and your opponents" (425). Polytopia Life Lessons include:
      • Empathy is not an asset
      • Play life like a game
      • Do not fear losing: "You will lose. it will hurt the first fifty times. When you get used to losing, you will play each game with less emotion. You will be more fearless, take more risks."
      • Be proactive
      • Optimize every turn
      • Double down
      • Pick your battles (front minimization)
      • Unplug at times
  • "Like Steve Jobs, he genuinely did not care if he offended or intimated the people he worked with, as long as he drove them to accomplish feats they thought were impossible." (64)
  • X.com:
    • "His insight was that money is simply an entry into a database, and he wanted to devise a way that all transactions were securely recorded in real time." (74)
    • He had read The Innovator's Dilemma and knew the banking industry could be disrupted (84)
  • He did his private pilot training in 2 weeks (!!) and bought an L-39. "Flying appealed to his daredevil gene. It also helped him visualize aerodynamics better." (91)
  • Musk's motivation for Mars (93)
    • Technological progress was not inevitable
    • Colonizing other planets would help ensure the survival of human civilization and consciousness
    • We must have inspiring things
  • Antonio Gracias on Tesla: "It's not the product that leads to success. It's the ability to make the product efficiently. It's about building the machine that builds the machine. In other words, how do you design the factory?" (157, 218)
  • "He liked to focus on work. At times he treated the rest of life as an unpleasant distraction." (236)
  • "When Grimes compared Elon's powers to those of Gandalf, he gave her a rapid-fire trivia test on The Lord of the Rings. He wanted to see whether she was truly a faithful fan. She passed...In the evenings they listened to Dan Carlin's Hardcore History and other history podcasts and audiobooks." (307)
  • "Robin Ren could either wear down Musk's resistance and have Tesla form a joint venture, which is what every other car company had done, or he could convince China's top leaders to change a law that had defined Chinese manufacturing growth for three decades. He discovered that the latter was easier." (314)
  • Musk's 2-bedroom house in Boca Chica has a few books on the coffee table including ~The Second World War, the Onion's Our Dumb Century, and Isaac Asimov's Foundation series (330)
  • Ukraine:
    • Elon secretly told his engineers to turn off Starlink coverage near Crimea to thwart a Ukrainian offensive and potential major escalation in the conflict: "We did not want to be a part of that." (430-431)
    • Elon thought there was a "strong likelihood that there would be a major confrontation with China over Taiwan within a year, which could decimate the world economy." (431)
  • Elon: "I don't have a scheduler" (436)
  • "Twitter is an ideal playground for Musk. It rewards players who are impulsive, irreverent, and unfiltered, like a flamethrower for the thumbs." (442)
  • Kimball Musk about being on a board of directors: "You tell people what you think, and then they smile and nod and ignore you." (450)
  • Twitter offer letter: "Twitter has extraordinary potential. I will unlock it." (455)
  • Elon on Sam Bankman-Fried: "My bullshit detector went of like red alert on a Geiger counter." (460)
    • Also: "Blockchain Twitter isn't possible, as the bandwidth and latency requirements cannot be supported by a peer to peer network." (460)
  • Twitter: "I believe there's a distinction between freedom of speech and freedom of reach." (465)
  • Chapter 84 on Twitter content moderation is important in interesting (524-531)
  • "One Christmas tradition that Kimbal and Christiana had was to ask everyone to reflect on a question." (587)
  • Tesla neural net vs rules-based autopilot: "The result was a software stack that was much simpler than the traditional one based on thousands of rules coded by humans." (597)
  • Tesla car video + Twitter postings = "powerful gushers of real-time data" to train AI models (598)

Full Excerpts

Below are some longer excerpts from the book quoted verbatim which give an interesting perspective on the topic noted:

Hardware and software (56)

One unfortunate trend in the 1980s was that cars and computers became tightly sealed appliances. It was possible to open up and fiddle with the innards of the Apple Il that Steve Wozniak designed in the late 1970s, but you couldn't do that with the Macintosh, which Steve Jobs in 1984 made almost impossible to open.

Similarly, kids in the 1970s and earlier grew up rummaging under the hoods of cars, tinkering with the carburetors, changing spark plugs, and souping up the engines. They had a fingertip-feel for valves and Valvoline. This hands-on imperative and Heathkit mindset even applied to radios and television sets; if you wanted, you could change the tubes and later the transistors and have a feel for how a circuit board worked.

This trend toward closed and sealed devices meant that most techies who came of age in the 1990s gravitated to software more than hardware. They never knew the sweet smell of a soldering iron, but they could code in ways that made circuits sing. Musk was differ-ent. He liked hardware as well as software. He could code, but he also had a feel for physical components, such as battery cells and capaci-tors, valves and combustion chambers, fuel pumps and fan belts.

Engineering leadership (79)

  • "I created separate design and production groups a long time ago, and that was a bullshit mistake." (390)
  • Twitter (557)

Musk restructured the company so that there was not a separate engineering department. Instead, engineers would team up with product managers. It was a philosophy that he would carry through to Tesla, SpaceX, and then Twitter. Separating the design of a product from its engineering was a recipe for dysfunction. Designers had to feel the immediate pain if something they devised was hard to engineer. He also had a corollary that worked well for rockets but less so for Twitter: engineers rather than the product managers should lead the team.

Building a risky team (110)

As his team grew, Musk infused it with his tolerance for risk and reality-bending willfulness. "If you were negative or thought something couldn't be done, you were not invited to the next meeting," Mueller recalls. "He just wanted people who would make things hap-pen." It was a good way to drive people to do what they thought was impossible. But it was also a good way to become surrounded by people afraid to give you bad news or question a decision.

Vertically integrated Tesla (132)

One of the most important decisions that Elon Musk made about Tesla—the defining imprint that led to its success and its impact on the auto industry—was that it should make its own key components, rather than piecing together a car with hundreds of components from independent suppliers. Tesla would control its own destiny—and quality and costs and supply chain—by being vertically integrated.
Creating a good car was important. Even more important was creating the manufacturing processes and factories that could mass-produce them, from the battery cells to the body.

Caring too much for employees (166)

  • "By trying to be nice to the people you're actually not being nice to the dozens of other people who are doing their jobs well and will get hurt if I don't fix the problem spots." (273)

Musk counters that being at the other extreme can be debilitating for a leader. Wanting to be everyone's friend, he told Marks, eats you to care too much about the emotions of the individual in front of you rather than caring about the success of the whole enterprise an approach that can lead to a far greater number of people being hurt.

Cut MVAC skirt for Dragon 1 launch (211)

"What if we just cut the skirt?" Musk asked his team. "Like, literally cut around it?" In other words, why not just trim off a tiny bit of the bottom that had the two cracks? The shorter skirt would mean the engine would have slightly less thrust, one engineer warned, but Musk calculated that there would still be enough to do the mission.

It took less than an hour to make the decision. Using a big pair of shears, the skirt was trimmed, and the rocket launched on its critical mission the next day, as planned. "NASA couldn't do anything but accept SpaceX's decisions and watch in disbelief," Garver recalls.

Repainting lines on 405 (247)

In desperation, Sam Teller and others came up with a simpler solution: ask the transportation department to repaint the lanes of that section of the highway. When they got no response, they came up with a more audacious plan. They decided to rent a line-painting machine of their own, go out at 3 a.m., shut the highway down for an hour, and redo the lanes. They had gone as far as tracking down a line-painting machine when someone finally got through to a person at the transportation department who was a Musk fan. He agreed to have the lines repainted if he and a few others at the department could get a tour of SpaceX. Teller gave them a tour, they posed for a picture, and the highway lines got repainted. After that, Musk's Autopilot handled the curve well.

Buying boring machines (257)

When Musk called back, Davis had figured out a few ideas for using a standard tunneling machine to bore a simple forty-foot-diameter round hole and not have to reinforce it with concrete. "How much do these machines cost?" Musk asked. Davis told him $5 mil-lion. Buy two of them, Musk said, and have them when I return.

Make decisions and don't worry about being perfect (279)

Throughout the spring and early summer of 2018, he prowled the factory floor, like he had in Nevada, making decisions on the fly. "Elon was going completely apeshit, marching from station to station," says Juncosa. Musk calculated that on a good day he made a hundred command decisions as he walked the floor. "At least twenty percent are going to be wrong, and we're going to alter them later," he said. "But if I don't make decisions, we die."

Woke education and transgenderism (344)

His disagreements with Jenna, Musk says, "became intense when she went beyond socialism to being a full communist and thinking that anyone rich is evil." He partly blames what he calls the progressive woke indoctrination that pervaded the Los Angeles private school she attended, Crossroads. When his kids were younger, he sent them to a school that he had created for family and friends called Ad Astra.
"They went there until they were about fourteen, but then I thought they should be introduced to the real world for high school" he says.
"What I should have done is extend Ad Astra through high school."

Choosing metrics (355)

Musk believed that innovation was driven by setting clear metrics, such as cost per ton lifted into orbit or average number of miles driven on Autopilot without human intervention. For Starlink, he surprised Juncosa by asking how many photons were collected by the solar arrays of the satellite versus how many they could usefully shoot down to Earth. It was a huge ratio—perhaps 10,000 to 1—and Juncosa had never considered it. "I certainly never thought of this as a metric," he says. "It forced me to try some creative thinking about how we could improve efficiency."

How deals are really done: text a friend and get $1B (459)

He spent that day trying to find outside investors who would help him finance the purchase. He asked Kimbal, who declined. He was more successful with Larry Ellison. "Yes, of course," Ellison had answered when Musk asked earlier in the week if he was interested in investing in the deal. "Roughly what dollar size?" Musk asked. "Not holding you to anything, but the deal is oversubscribed, so I have to reduce or kick out some participants." "A billion," said Ellison, "or whatever you recommend."

Transgenderism (467)

Musk had made peace with Jenna's transitioning, even though he had not embraced the protocols about listing one's pronouns. He believed that she was rejecting him because of her political ideology. "It's full-on communism, and a general sentiment that if you're rich, you're evil," he said. It was all very jangling for Musk. "We are simultaneously being told that gender differences do not exist and that genders are so profoundly different that irreversible surgery is the only option," he tweeted that week. "Perhaps someone wiser than me can explain this dichotomy."

Learning from how toys are made (487)

Musk brought some toys, including a robot that could follow a person with its eyes and another that could break-dance, to one of the design reviews in mid-July. He believed that toys could offer les-sons; a little model car had inspired him to make real cars using big casting presses, for example, and Legos helped him understand the importance of precision manufacturing.

Taking recommendations from bankers (490)

Steel had an interesting insight about Musk. When most clients are given three or four options, they will ask which one the banker recommends. Musk, instead, asked detailed questions about each option but did not solicit a recommendation. He liked to make his own decision.

Moving Twitter servers (584)

Musk turned to his security guard and asked to borrow his pocket knife. Using it, he was able to lift one of the air vents in the floor, which allowed him to pry open the floor panels. He then crawled under the server floor himself, used the knife to jimmy open an electrical cabinet, pulled the server plugs, and waited to see what happened. Nothing exploded. The server was ready to be moved. "Well that doesn't seem super hard," he said as Alex the Uzbek and the rest of the gang stared. Musk was totally jazzed by this point. It was, he said with a loud laugh, like a remake of Mission: Impossible, Sacramento edition.

Highlight progress to motivate the team(596)

Members of the team installed massive eighty-five-inch television monitors in their workspace that displayed in real time how many miles the FSD cars were driving on average without interventions. Whenever they would see a type of intervention recurring—such as drivers grabbing the wheel during a lane change or a merge or a turn into a complex intersection—they would work with both the rules and the neural network planner to make a fix. They put a gong near their desks, and whenever they successfully solved a problem causing an intervention, they got to bang the gong.

First Starship launch (609)

A half-hour before the scheduled launch, Juncosa came out to the ] deck and briefed Musk on an issue that had been detected by one of the sensors. Musk processed it for a few seconds and then declared, "I don't think that would be an actual risk." Juncosa did a quick jig, said "Perfect," and darted back into the control room. Musk soon followed and took his seat at a front-row console, whistling Beethoven's Ode to Joy."

Isaacson's take on Musk (612)

The explosion of Starship was emblematic of Musk, a fitting metaphor for his compulsion to aim high, act impulsively, take wild risks, and accomplish amazing things -but also to blow things up and leave smoldering debris in his wake while cackling maniacally. His life had long been an admixture of historically transforming achievements along with wild flameouts, broken promises, and arrogant impulses. Both his accomplishments and his failures were epic. That made him revered by fanboys and reviled by critics, each side exhibiting the feverish fervor of the hyperpolarized Age of Twitter. Driven since childhood by demons and heroic compulsions, he stoked the controversies by making inflammatory political pronouncements and picking unnecessary fights. Completely possessed at times, he regularly propelled himself to the Kármán line of crazi-ness, the blurry border that separates vision from hallucination. His life had too few flame diverters.

Topic: Elon Musk



file:(~Elon Musk)

New Words


Created: 2023-09-23-Sat
Updated: 2023-11-30-Thu

  1. The first was as an intern in 2011 during a Q&A lunch where I asked him what he would do after SpaceX and Tesla. He said he wanted to build a supersonic, vertical takeoff and landing, electric powered jet. I haven't seen reference to this anywhere else so I wonder if it was a snarky response.

    The second was in November 2015 when we were behind on shipping F9S1-22 and he came back to talk to the whole stage 1 crew about how important meeting the schedule was to SpaceX and our customers. It was a bit awkward.